Imams divided on how much scrutiny to give would-be Muslim converts in wake of recent terror charges
A debate has emerged among Muslim leaders across the country about the extent to which they should probe the motivations of people who express an interest in converting to Islam.
Some imams have proposed a full-on checklist of questions that should be asked of every potential convert. Some are also strongly encouraging new Muslims to participate in Islam 101 classes or to pair up with a mentor as part of a faith-based “buddy system.”
But other leaders caution against an approach that could cast all interested individuals under a cloud of suspicion.
“We cannot impose on anyone,” said Mohammad Iqbal AlNadvi, chairman of the Canadian Council of Imams.
One thing is clear though, he said, imams are being “more cautious” and allowing more time for new Muslims than they did in the past.
Carlos and Ashton Larmond, the twin brothers from Ottawa charged last month with terrorism-related offences, are said to be recent converts. Police have linked the pair to John Maguire, the former University of Ottawa student who converted to Islam before leaving Canada to join the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria.
John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, the B.C. couple currently being tried on charges of plotting to blow up the provincial legislature, were recent converts to Islam. So too were Martin Couture-Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the two men who carried out separate attacks on Canadian soldiers last October.
The process of converting to Islam is relatively simple. All one has to do is recite a short declaration that there is one god worthy of worship and that Muhammad is his messenger. What religious leaders are currently debating is what should happen leading up to that point and after.
Syed Soharwardy, a Calgary imam who founded Muslims Against Terrorism and the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, says he will publish in the coming weeks a checklist of questions that he thinks all imams should ask prospective converts.
This is not meant to be an interrogation, Mr. Soharwardy said, but rather “passive” questioning aimed at finding out why the person wants to become a Muslim.
“I’m not saying imams should be detectives, but I need to know what kind of person I’m talking to,” Mr. Soharwardy said. “Since many have become Muslim and have shown violent behaviour, I think it is an obligation of our imams to not let Islam be dragged [down]by people who don’t understand Islam.”
It is also “absolutely critical,” he said, that leaders work to stay connected with new Muslims by inviting them to social gatherings and assigning trusted individuals to serve as their mentors.
Aasim Rashid, a spokesman for the B.C. Muslim Association, said the handling of new Muslims can’t be overly prescriptive; otherwise, you run the risk of unfairly stigmatizing them.
“As long as they are accepting Islam for the right reasons I would feel compelled to welcome them warmly and give them the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
He does agree with Mr. Soharwardy about the need to encourage new Muslims to join classes and programs so that they acquire a solid understanding of the religion and are more integrated into the Muslim community.
There is also a need for Muslim leaders to come up with programming that has broader appeal, said Amira Elghawaby, human rights coordinator with the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
One Ottawa mosque held a discussion a few weeks ago about the term “jihad” and it drew hundreds of attendees, she said. But people do not always believe that the topics discussed at sermons are that relevant to them, she said.
Inclusivity is key, said Lorne Dawson, a University of Waterloo expert on radicalization. “Converts to Islam — and especially those who later radicalize — commonly report that while their conversion was encouraged, they did not feel welcome in the often very ethnic mosques and communities with which they tried to associate,” Dawson said in an email.
As a result, they go “searching on and off-line for a Muslim home and that can be the kind of de-cultured fundamentalist forms of Islam associated with the promotion of jihadism.”